JULY 5–AUGUST 14, 1862
LINCOLN’S CRISIS WAS JEFFERSON DAVIS’S OPPORTUNITY. IN JULY 1862, for the first time in the war, it seemed possible for the Confederacy to seize the strategic initiative. In the west, the six-month Union grand offensive had reached the limit of Federal strength and ground to a halt. In Virginia, Lee’s victory over McClellan had stymied the Union drive to capture Richmond. All of the major Confederate field armies had disengaged from their Union opponents and recovered their freedom to maneuver and to strike at points of their own choosing. These included Lee’s army in Richmond, an army of about fifteen-to-nineteen thousand commanded by General Edmund Kirby Smith in eastern Tennessee, Bragg’s thirty-five thousand troops in northern Alabama, and a force of some twenty-five thousand men under Generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price defending northern Mississippi.
Davis had been criticized by a considerable faction of Confederate leaders and newspapers for standing too long on the defensive, allowing the Yankees to invade and occupy Southern territory. That criticism has been echoed by military historians, who have contrasted Davis’s supposed predilection for territorial defense with Lee’s preference—his perhaps excessive preference—for the offensive. In truth, it was not want of will but want of power that prevented him from carrying the war to the enemy.1
Until July 1862 Confederate strategy had been crippled by the conflicting demands of defending its territory and developing offensive capability. The Confederate army had to defend a territory nearly as large as that of the Union, with far less military manpower. The total population of the Northern states was more than twice that of the Confederacy (twenty-two as against nine million). The differential in military manpower was actually greater, because nearly 40 percent of the Southern total were slaves, who could not be used as combatants. The South’s ability to mobilize its military strength was also slowed by its limited capacity for manufacturing war materials (weapons, ammunition, uniforms) and the inadequacy of its railroad network. During the opening months of the war, Davis and Lee, who was then acting as the president’s chief military adviser, had to divide their limited resources to concentrate field armies for the defense of a northern border that stretched fifteen hundred miles from Virginia to western Missouri. At the same time they had to form garrisons and mobile reserves to defend critical points all around the Confederate coast, from the Carolina sounds to New Orleans. Despite its best efforts, during the first year of hostilities the Confederacy was unable to recruit, arm, and train forces sufficient for those tasks. Thus when Halleck’s armies advanced into central and western Tennessee in February and March 1862, Davis had to strip the garrison of New Orleans to reinforce his Army of Tennessee. The reinforcement proved inadequate to defeat Halleck, and its removal allowed a Federal amphibious expedition to capture New Orleans. Similarly, the concentration of Virginia and North Carolina troops in the defense of Richmond left the North Carolina sounds and the coast southward vulnerable to Federal amphibious expeditions.
The conflicting military demands of concentration and peripheral defense were also the central problem of Confederate politics.
As president of the Confederacy, Davis’s mission was to establish and defend a new government, whose fundamental principles were the primacy of the states’ powers as against those of the national government, and the protection of the property right in slaves from interference by government authority. His foreign policy was summed up in the simple phrase “All we ask is to be left alone.” But in the fifteen months that ran from the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 to the first weeks of July 1862 Davis had been schooled by the exigencies of war, the loss of major seaports and large territory to invasion, the disruption of the cotton economy and the plantation system. Davis found that in order to maintain the struggle for national independence he had to challenge the strict interpretation of states’ rights theory: imposing taxes, demanding the release of state troops for service with the national armies, suspending habeas corpus, reaching past the governors of the states to conscript soldiers directly into the national armies. He would also find himself interfering with the master-slave relation, by requisitioning slaves to work on fortifications.
These policies provoked a reaction from leaders who, for reasons of interest and ideology, advocated a strict construction of the Confederate constitution’s states’-rights principles. Some Southern governors, like Georgia’s Governor Joe Brown, were concerned about the defense of their own communities and therefore resisted national conscription and refused to release state troops for service with the national field armies. A powerful minority within the Confederate government, led by Vice-President Alexander Stephens of Georgia, resisted every measure of the Richmond government that infringed on the sovereignty of the states, no matter how necessary the measure might be to national defense. In the summer of 1862 Stephens condemned Davis’s policies as incipient despotism, every bit as bad as the supposed tyranny of Abraham Lincoln, against which they had rebelled. Stephens declared that he would rather see the Confederacy perish than suffer its government to violate the strictures that limited its powers.2
States’-rights fundamentalism also affected the way Confederate leaders thought about military operations. There was a significant minority of opinion that regarded the use of Confederate forces to invade Northern territory as constitutionally illegitimate. Some even questioned whether regiments from one state were obliged to serve beyond its borders, even in defense of another state. A purely defensive policy was consistent with the ideological principle which held that secession was not a revolutionary or hostile act but a necessary measure of self-protection, and with the administration’s declared war aim: “All we ask is to be left alone.” That principle was most eloquently argued by James D. B. DeBow, a pioneer statistician and social scientist, former head of the U.S. Census Bureau, and editor of DeBow’s Review, the South’s preeminent intellectual journal. “We are not revolutionists,” he wrote in May 1862, “we are resisting revolution” to conserve an established order. It follows that “We can never become aggressive; we may absorb, but we can never invade for conquest, any neighboring State.” Ideological resistance to invasion was augmented by the misguided pragmatism of politicians who (as Davis complained) “feared to excite the hatred of our enemies, and the few others who clung to the [delusive] hope of aid from our old party-allies at the North.”3
On the other hand, Davis was also assailed by those who believed he was entirely too enamored of defensive warfare, which had left the South exposed to invasion. The Savannah, Georgia, Republican derided Davis’s defensive policy as “a blunder, and a most grievous one, entailing increased bloodshed and melancholy devastation.” The Richmond Daily Dispatch, one of the Confederate capital’s own journals, informed Davis that Southern newspapers, the voice of the Southern people, were “unanimous, or nearly so, in favor of an advance into the enemy’s territories.” Davis had so far rejected that call: “Will the voice of the people again be denied?” The Charleston (South Carolina) Mercury, journalistic voice of the city and state whose uncompromising advocacy of states’ rights and slavery had driven the South into secession, was unequivocal in demanding a change of policy. Halleck’s army must be checked at Corinth and McClellan defeated at Richmond, and then “we trust and believe that we shall have done with the defensive policy, and that two powerful columns will at once be put in motion toward the banks of the Ohio and the Susquehannah.”4
Davis had to strike a balance between these conflicting principles and the policies they entailed. He approached the problem as a Southern nationalist, not a states’-rights strict constructionist. He accepted in principle the division of powers in the Confederate constitution, but in practice pressed against its limitation of central government powers in order to achieve the ultimate purpose for which the state was founded—national independence. Two measures in particular had driven his own vice president, Alec Stephens, into political opposition: the Conscription Act, which empowered the national government to draft troops in the states, overriding the authority of the governors; and the suspension of habeas corpus, giving the Richmond government power to suppress dissidence, insurrection, and draft resistance in the states—in Stephens’s view a despotic overthrow of civil liberty.5
It is easy to condemn the shortsightedness of governors like Brown for failing to recognize that the war could not be won, and independence achieved, without victories by the national field armies; and that if the war was lost, local defense was meaningless. However, it must be remembered that the purpose of secession and of the struggle for independence was to preserve slavery and the social order based on that institution. By the summer of 1862 Southern leaders from Davis on down were learning for themselves the truth of Lincoln’s warning to the Border State congressmen: that slavery could be destroyed by “the mere friction of war.” Wherever Northern armies went, slaves fled to Federal lines or were confiscated from Rebel owners. Already Union forces occupied large swathes of territory in which plantation agriculture predominated: Missouri, west and central Tennessee, Louisiana between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, the North Carolina sounds, the Virginia Tidewater. Raids from these districts disrupted plantation discipline (and provoked flight by slaves) along the Mississippi River, in northern Mississippi and Alabama, and inland from the beachheads along the Atlantic coast. To retain control of their property, many planters in these districts were collaborating with Union occupiers, which undermined the struggle for Southern independence.6 The Richmond Whig, the most influential of the papers published in the Confederate capital, stated the problem clearly for the Southern public and their elected officials to read. A slaveholding society could not protect itself by a “Fabian,” or defensive, strategy. “A slave-holding community . . . is most powerful for offensive war; for while the whites go to war, the slaves carry on the productive industry of the country. But for defensive war, it is the weakest,” since the invader, by freeing slaves, destroys “the very elements of subsistence.”7
In developing a war-winning strategy, Davis and Lee had to take into account the vulnerability of the social system they were defending. Clearly they could not allow the need for local defense to drain their field armies of strength. Neither could they indefinitely expose the plantation system to the friction of war. The only remedy was to win the war for independence in relatively short order. In July 1862 Davis, like Lincoln, had abandoned the hope that a “conservative” approach to war—in this case the refusal to invade Northern territory—might so conciliate the enemy that he would consent to separation. Like Lincoln, Davis recognized that prewar political allies and ideological sympathizers who remained in the enemy’s camp could not immediately aid his cause. The only way to break the enemy’s political will and rouse a political opposition to his regime was to make the Northern people feel the pain and cost of war. That could only be done by inflicting heavy defeats on his armies and carrying the war into enemy territory. In July 1862 the opportunity to do so was tantalizingly close. Davis and Lee were agreed in principle on the necessity of counteroffensives. They had still to decide what kind of offensives were possible; how limited or ambitious the objectives should be; what the chances were of winning decisive results that might shorten the war, and how much could be risked to make the attempt.
The general framework of their strategic thought has been described as “offensive-defensive.” The primary goal of such a strategy is to defend one’s society and territory against invasion by an enemy superior in strength. Defensive tactics are used to delay, disrupt, and attenuate the invading force; but the defender maintains a mobile reserve force with which to counterattack the invader. Within that general structure significant choices had to be made about the balance between offense and defense, and the intensity and function of counteroffensive operations.
The American War of Independence offered the model best known to Davis and Lee and was in many ways an appropriate one. The two most successful American generals, Washington and Nathanael Greene, had used defensive measures to weary and attenuate British forces. They had also accepted battle or attacked when they saw a chance to cut off or drive back an advanced force, but avoided the kind of all-or-nothing combat that risked the destruction of their own forces. As Greene said, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” These tactics, coupled with raiding and guerrilla warfare, allowed the Americans to limit the territory the British could occupy and control. They also enabled the Americans to effect opportunistic concentrations against exposed British columns, which led to important victories like Trenton (1776) and Cowpens (1780), and the decisive surrenders of British armies at Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781).8
It has been said that the strategy of Washington and Greene was to “win by not losing,” emphasizing defense and force protection over offense, prolonging the conflict till the enemy despaired of winning it. Some historians have criticized Davis and/or Lee for being both impatient with defense and overinvested in offensives that chased a chimerical dream of decisive victory. But unlike the thirteen colonies, the Confederacy could not afford an indefinite prolongation of the war. It took eight years for the Continental Army to outlast the British—whose base of supply was on the other side of the ocean—and even then their victory also required the military intervention of France, Holland, and Spain. Small British armies could only occupy a few seaports; they could ravage the countryside, but in a land of small plantations and subsistence farms the damage they did was ephemeral. The Confederacy’s enemies were next-door neighbors, and their stake in preserving the Union was more strongly and immediately felt than the British public’s stake in its distant colonies. Northern armies were large enough, and close enough to their base of supplies, to occupy considerable territory. Moreover, the slave-based system of plantation agriculture on which the modern South depended was far more vulnerable to catastrophic disruption than the relatively simple agrarian economy of the colonies. A long war might theoretically exhaust the North’s taste for conquest, but the strains such a war would impose on Southern society were likely to prove fatal.
Davis’s understanding of these issues was clearly set out in a letter sent on July 18 to John Forsyth, a supporter who had written to warn Davis that the public was unhappy with his defensive military policies and puzzled by his unwillingness to take the war to the enemy. Davis answered that it was not want of will but want of power that had prevented him from attacking the North directly, to make the enemy “feel in its most tangible form the evils of war.” Because of its relative weakness, the Confederacy had had no choice but to stand on the defensive until the Union’s invading columns had been checked. However, once that was achieved, Davis believed that the Confederacy could and should take the offensive in order to reverse the course of the conflict. Two kinds of counteroffensive were possible. One was to make what Davis called “aggressive movements upon detachments of the enemy”—that is, to concentrate forces against an advanced column of Union troops, defeat it and force it to retreat, or even cut it off and destroy it. Although Davis did not say so, this was the method that had been tried unsuccessfully against Grant’s army at Shiloh but with great success against McClellan’s army in the Seven Days.
The other offensive model was to attempt an “invasion” of Northern territory, which Davis believed was the most effective way to win the war. “My early declared purpose and continued hope was to feed upon the enemy and teach them the blessings of peace by making them feel in its most tangible form the evils of war.” The two modes were not exclusive. Before a successful invasion could be mounted it would be necessary to defeat the Federal armies that were pressing against vital points in both the western theater and the eastern. But the Forsyth letter indicates that, in the aftermath of the Seven Days, Davis was reconceiving Confederate strategy in the largest terms; not limiting his plans to the repulse of Federal attacks and the recovery of lost ground, but trying to imagine a war-winning strategy that would directly attack the political will of the Unionists. He would reiterate that theme in his July 5 proclamation congratulating Lee’s army on its triumph. It was not enough that they had won a brilliant victory over a superior force. Their ultimate purpose remained: not only to drive the invaders back but to “carry your standards beyond the outer boundaries of the Confederacy, to wring from an unscrupulous foe the recognition of your birthright, community independence.” In this respect he was in accord with his chief adviser and victorious army commander, Robert E. Lee.9
THE STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP OF DAVIS AND LEE
Davis was a West Point graduate (Class of 1828) who had served seven years in the Regular Army before resigning to become a planter in Mississippi. He had raised a volunteer regiment for the Mexican War and won distinction as a combat commander. During his tenure as secretary of war (1853–57) he had organized the army’s great survey expeditions that explored the West for possible transcontinental railroad routes. As Confederate president he possessed and exercised the powers of commander in chief and took primary responsibility for strategic planning.
His training and experience gave him a confidence in his military expertise that was not entirely justified, and he did not suffer criticism gladly. He was humorless, stiff, and cold in manner; a sufferer from neuralgia and other ailments that shortened his temper. His intelligence was legalistic rather than logical, moralistic rather than ethically astute. He prided himself on his high principles and personal rectitude, assuming a moral height from which opposing opinions seemed crass or discreditable. He had the unfortunate tendency of seeing disagreements, whether on matters of judgment or of principle, as personal slights, aspersions cast on his honor. His correspondence with his generals and other Confederate leaders is peppered with quarrels over relatively minor points of difference, which Davis seems unable to avoid or let pass. Over time, these qualities would poison his working relationship with two of his most senior and experienced field generals, Joseph Johnston and Pierre Beauregard, both of whom shared his tendency to “greatly find quarrel in a straw.” On the other hand, Generals Bragg and Hood won Davis’s favor by adopting his views and by flattery; and Davis would maintain them in command despite strong evidence of their unfitness.10
But Davis had real abilities and virtues as a commander in chief, which came to the fore in the summer of 1862. He had already displayed both good judgment and political courage in pushing vital “national” measures like the Conscription Act, without which the armies would have been inadequate to defend themselves, let alone take the offensive.11 Then in July he would respond with intelligence, daring, and flexibility to the opportunities that had suddenly opened to him. The quality of his performance was undoubtedly aided by his reliance on his chief military adviser, General Robert E. Lee.
Lee was almost unique in his ability to maintain cordial and collegial relations with Davis, balancing deference and respect with a patient but firm insistence on his own views. It helped that Davis admired Lee’s character and military abilities, and trusted him absolutely. At fifty-five, Lee had poise, dignity, and self-command. He was above average in height, with steel-gray hair and a full beard—the gray had overtaken him suddenly during the crisis over Virginia’s secession. Something in his manner evoked instant respect and deference from nearly everyone with whom he came in contact.
Davis was one generation removed from the hardscrabble existence of the same Kentucky frontier that produced Lincoln. His status of gentleman was hard and newly won, and therefore vulnerable and in need of defense. Lee inhabited honor as a garment native to him—though he too had had to work to maintain it. His lineage was aristocratic, as Americans understood the term. His father was “Light Horse” Harry Lee, a scion of Virginia’s patrician planter class and a hero of the American Revolution. But Light Horse Harry’s questionable business dealings had impoverished the family and in some measure disgraced the name. Robert had regained the fortune by marriage to a descendant of Martha Washington, and the honor through hard service in the military, and an uncompromising devotion to the ideals embodied in the Code. Yet “honor” only has meaning if conferred by the particular community to which one is born, which for Lee was Virginia. So when Virginia seceded, Lee went with his state.
He was well versed in the curriculum and theory of war, and had had a uniquely rich and illuminating experience of combat as a staff officer for Winfield Scott in the campaign against Mexico City. He had moved from headquarters to the front lines and was engaged at every level, from the scouting of terrain and enemy positions to the timing and conduct of assaults. Scott’s army had been badly outnumbered and was operating on foreign soil with the most tenuous line of supply. Still, Scott had managed to win the battles and the war by creating an army superior to its enemy in discipline and organization, and therefore with superior mobility. He had used that mobility to seize and keep the initiative, not only throwing the enemy off balance but preventing his reorganization. Above all, Scott had won the war because he had been willing to undertake great, almost forbidding risks—risks that lesser military minds regarded as impossible but which his own careful calculation told him his army could overcome. Lee would take that same approach in planning his own operations. McClellan’s judgment that Lee was an excessively “timid” commander ranks among the most egregious of McClellan’s many intelligence failures. Fortunately for the Confederacy, President Davis’s opinion was the only opinion that mattered.12
The relationship between Davis and Lee was the antithesis of the antagonism between Lincoln and McClellan. The Confederate president and his general in chief were entirely in agreement on the ultimate political purposes for which the war was being fought: Southern independence and the preservation of the Southern way of life. There was never any question of Lee’s loyalty to the national cause or his subordination to the civilian authority. Although Davis was generally more cautious than Lee, he shared his general’s belief that a purely defensive strategy was inadequate. He was willing, even eager, to undertake offensives involving real but limited risks, in order to frustrate Federal plans and discourage the Northern public.13
There were some moments after Lee’s assumption of command when the uncertain boundary between presidential and military authority was tested. The fact that the Army of Northern Virginia operated close to the capital offered many temptations to presidential interference with operations. On one occasion during the Seven Days, when Davis appeared at the front, Lee pointedly asked, “Am I in command here?” and, when Davis acknowledged his authority, ordered him away from the command position. As the war went on, Lee would use various means, direct and indirect, to keep Davis away from the army in the field. In striking the balance between risk and prudence, Lee was more inclined to risk; and there is some evidence that at Gettysburg Lee deliberately obscured or concealed his intentions in order to conduct a more daring campaign than the president favored. In the summer of 1862, however, the two shared a common understanding of the tactical problems they faced, the strategic goals they sought, and the kinds of risk they might have to take to achieve those goals.14
The most immediate objective was to reverse the tactical momentum of the war by throwing the Federal armies onto the defensive and forcing them to withdraw from some or all of the territory they had won in the first six months of the year. By shifting the zone of conflict back toward the northern borders, the Confederacy would not only make its economic heartland more secure but also regain access to the resources of their lost counties. Such a tactical success would at least forestall further offensives by the North and buy time for the Confederacy to build its strength.
A successful strategic offensive also had the potential for producing decisive political results, by convincing Maryland and Kentucky to join the other slave states in secession. It might also produce a political revulsion in the North against the Republican administration and its war policy. Davis was very much aware that the North’s midterm congressional elections were approaching, and he believed that a series of impressive Southern victories would stimulate the energies and raise the electoral prospects of the “peace party” in the north. A defeat for Republicans at the polls, coupled with Confederate victories on the battlefield, might in turn have a decisive effect on the British and French governments, which were considering whether or not to intervene diplomatically with an offer of mediation that would lead to Confederate independence. Davis’s agents in Europe, and his official representatives to Britain and France, James Mason and John Slidell, reported that both governments were eager to regain access to Southern cotton. However, because they also wished to avoid war with the Americans, they were waiting for signs that the Northern people were turning against the war and willing to give it up.15
PLANNING A STRATEGIC OFFENSIVE
JULY 5–AUGUST 5, 1862
The elements of a new offensive strategy developed in stages, over a one-month period—roughly from July 5 to August 5—in response to the shifting tactical alignment of forces both in the western theater and on the Richmond front.
Lee’s victory in the Seven Days had saved Richmond and left McClellan’s army apparently unable to resume the offensive until it had been reorganized and reinforced. Still, it was impossible for Lee to exploit his victory by continuing to attack. McClellan’s army was unassailable—eighty-five thousand strong, in a fortified camp with the U.S. Navy providing artillery support and protecting its supply lines. Lee’s army, soon to be renamed the Army of Northern Virginia, had suffered heavy casualties in its week of repeated assaults—twenty thousand killed, wounded, and captured, 22 percent of his initial force of between ninety and ninety-five thousand. The army had been further diminished by lax administration in its regiments, whose officers were liberal to the point of carelessness in granting furloughs and sick leaves. Lee was working hard to tighten the army’s discipline and organization and, with Davis’s active help, was rebuilding its strength. The situation at Richmond was becoming increasingly desperate, because through the first two or three weeks of July Lee had only fifty-six thousand troops concentrated for action against McClellan, who had eighty-five thousand on hand, with another twenty thousand reinforcements headed his way.
Lee’s situation was further complicated by the discovery (July 10) that the Federals were forming a new army in northern Virginia, commanded by Major General John Pope, an energetic general who had been transferred from the western theater. Pope’s force was estimated at forty thousand troops, organized from among the disparate commands that had vainly chased after Stonewall Jackson during his Shenandoah Valley campaign. It was a number that was likely to rise, since the Federals were known to be transferring troops from North Carolina and West Virginia to reinforce both Pope and McClellan. In a matter of weeks Pope’s force could be raised to fifty-five thousand or more, and if it were to unite with McClellan’s one hundred thousand, the odds against Lee would be prohibitive.16
Lee was thus faced with a seemingly intractable tactical dilemma. From its position at Harrison’s Landing, McClellan’s army posed an imminent threat to the capital, and Lee lacked the strength to drive the Federals from that position. Once Pope’s army was fully organized and reinforced, it would be able to move against Richmond from the north. If left unchecked it would cut the link by which supplies reached Richmond from the Shenandoah and eventually approach the capital itself. Once his army got close to Richmond, Pope could coordinate with McClellan a combined assault by some 150,000 troops against a Confederate force of less than half that strength. The obvious way to forestall that fatal combination was to attack and destroy Pope’s army while it was still well north of Richmond. Unfortunately for Lee and Davis, to destroy a force of that size would require the detachment of at least 30,000 from the Richmond defenses, leaving the capital inadequately protected against an advance by McClellan’s 85,000-plus.
Davis and Lee agreed on the necessity of preventing Pope’s army from reaching Richmond, and on the need to balance risk with prudence in deciding when to shift troops away from Richmond. However, since Lee’s whole theory of war emphasized the necessity of gaining and holding the strategic initiative, to control the timing and direction of operations, he was more willing than Davis to thin the force defending Richmond and rely on McClellan’s notorious reluctance to advance to keep the city safe while he was defeating Pope.
Davis was more than willing to consider a possible offensive. Since the spring, pressure for a strike against the North had been mounting from the press, and from political leaders in states invaded by Federal forces. Anger at the losses inflicted by the invaders and the desire for retaliation lent passion to these demands; Lee’s victory lent them plausibility. The Richmond Daily Dispatch of July 5 urged Davis to “Follow Up the Victory . . . ‘Retaliation’ should be now the watchword. Defensive warfare is, under peculiar circumstances, wise, and in our case has been unavoidable. But at the earliest moment the enemy should be made to feel some of the horrors of invasive warfare.”17 However, Davis’s daring was tempered by concern for the safety of Richmond. It was a keystone of the war effort, as both a manufacturing center and as the most valued symbol of Confederate nationality. Its loss would shake the morale of the Southern people, and it would be a heavy if not fatal blow to Davis’s campaign to win diplomatic recognition and assistance from Britain and France.
Davis was also concerned about the casualties likely to result from an all-out strike against Pope. Twice his armies had concentrated to strike at Federal “detachments” thrust deep into Southern territory. They were defeated at Shiloh and victorious in the Seven Days. But, whether in victory or defeat, their losses had been terrible: 10,700 killed, wounded, or missing at Shiloh, more than 20,000 lost during the Seven Days. Repeated losses on that scale might exhaust the Confederacy’s limited manpower. The problem with any offensive in Virginia was the likelihood that a maneuver plan would end in a general engagement. In the western theater, Federal armies with an aggregate strength of about 150,000 men defended a front that stretched more than 400 miles, over varied terrain, from the Mississippi River to Cumberland Gap. There was ample space for a Confederate army on the offensive to maneuver without being forced into an unwanted general engagement. In Virginia the Federals had 150,000 troops concentrated within 100 miles of Richmond, and the area open to offensive operations was constricted to the narrow region between the mountains and the tidewater, which averaged less than 100 miles from east to west. If Lee moved north he would almost certainly have to fight a general engagement, which would inevitably entail serious casualties.18
From Lee’s perspective, such costs might be justified if by moving against Pope he could so threaten Washington that McClellan’s army would be withdrawn from the Peninsula. The zone of conflict would then be shifted from the Richmond suburbs to the approaches to Washington, which would free the productive farms of northern Virginia from Federal occupation. More significantly, Union forces in the theater would be thrown onto the defensive. At the least that would mean a long delay in any new Federal offensive against Richmond; and if Lee could gain and hold the tactical initiative he could control the course of war in the theater, and perhaps even win a decisive engagement. Although the potential results would be of great or even decisive value, Davis was not yet ready to run the risks of such a campaign. He chose a compromise solution. He would hold the bulk of Lee’s army in the Richmond defenses but authorize Lee to detach a force of fifteen thousand under Jackson to Gordonsville, where it could observe Pope’s movements. However, Jackson lacked the strength to defeat Pope if the latter made a determined advance with his full force. Jackson moved north on July 13 and was in position two days later.
While Davis and Lee were struggling with the problems of the Virginia theater, prospects for a counteroffensive were emerging in the West. Buell’s army was marching laterally across Tennessee toward Chattanooga, its supply lines exposed to constant disruption by Rebel cavalry raiders. Buell was an officer of the McClellan type, never one to move with alacrity, and these difficulties slowed his march to a crawl. In the meantime the army commanded by U. S. Grant was forced to stand on the defensive around Corinth, unable to begin its offensive down the Mississippi because its reserves were spread out trying to defend Buell’s supply lines.
As a result, none of the Confederate armies in West were being pressured; all were free to maneuver, and their commanders had time to consider measures for countering or reversing the Federal advances. The two most important armies in the theater were the Army of Tennessee, the force that had assailed Grant at Shiloh, thirty-five thousand troops commanded by General Bragg, and a smaller army of nineteen thousand troops in East Tennessee commanded by General Edmund Kirby Smith. Bragg and Smith developed, and set before President Davis, a bold plan for a theater-wide counteroffensive that would culminate in the invasion and “liberation” of Kentucky. Smith’s forces would lead the way, striking into Kentucky. Bragg would shift his entire force eastward by rail to Chattanooga, moving much faster than Buell’s plodding, harassed columns, then follow Smith into Kentucky. Buell would be forced to turn north to prevent Bragg and Smith from cutting his supply line to Louisville, and the two Rebel armies could combine to defeat him. To prevent Grant’s army from interfering, Bragg would transfer to Mississippi the troops under Generals Van Dorn and Price that had been fighting west of the big river.19
Events would show that the wisdom of the Bragg/Smith plan was questionable, and its conduct would be riddled with errors of judgment and missed opportunities. However, what concerns us here is the effect of their plans and actions on the strategic design Davis and Lee were developing. Davis was ready to seize the opportunity that had suddenly opened and shift from defense to the strategic offensive. Davis received and approved a general outline of the Bragg/Smith plan on July 13—the same day that Jackson began his movement against Pope—and by July 21 Bragg had laid out his plan in detail. Davis’s determination is reflected in the instructions he sent to Bragg and Smith, which enjoined them to “crush” Buell’s army in decisive battle before invading and recovering Tennessee and Kentucky. He told them that he hoped to be able to “strike a blow” in Virginia as well, holding McClellan in place with one force while striking at Pope with another. Thus Davis’s plans were national in scope.20
The prospect of a decisive offensive in the West made necessary some sort of action on the Virginia front, if only to give Federal troops “full employment in this quarter” and prevent reinforcements from going west. The offensive spirit shown by Bragg and Smith, coupled with political developments in northern Virginia, made Davis more willing to authorize the kind of offensive operations Lee was advocating. For months Davis had been noting signs of increasing radicalization in Federal policy. On March 13, 1862, Lincoln had issued an order forbidding army officers from returning fugitive slaves to Rebel owners, reversing an earlier policy under which the government had continued to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. A month later Congress abolished slavery in the District of Columbia, and on June 19 it passed a law barring slavery from U.S. territories. On July 17 Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, far more severe than its predecessor; and the tenor of congressional and editorial debate showed strong and growing support for more punitive policies. Federal generals in New Orleans and the Sea Islands had actually begun recruiting “confiscated” slaves for military duty; and though the Lincoln administration disavowed and reversed their actions, Davis correctly read these acts as omens of future policy.
Then, in mid-July, General Pope suddenly emerged as the symbol and most powerful agent of Northern Radicalism. Pope’s sudden transfer from the West, and his assumption of the important command in northern Virginia, coincided with passage of the Second Confiscation Act, and Pope immediately put himself forward as the act’s most militant enforcer. In a general order, issued on July 18, Pope informed his army that it would “subsist upon the country in which their operations are carried out.” To that end, he gave his troops license to confiscate from Virginia civilians anything required for the army’s subsistence, including food, draft animals, and (presumably) slaves who might be used as cooks, teamsters, laborers, and so on. The order also declared that civilians would be held responsible for the actions of guerrillas operating in their area. They would be compelled to repair or to pay for any damage to railroads, bridges, or government property, and be subject to punitive confiscation. This was followed on July 23 by a still stronger order that required all civilians in Pope’s area to choose between swearing an oath of loyalty and being exiled from the district; and anyone who then violated the oath could be executed, and his family’s property confiscated.
Davis and Lee were outraged by Pope’s proclamation and protested it as a violation of the laws and usages of civilized war. In his July 28 letter to General Smith, Davis referred to Pope’s proceeding as a “reign of terror.” He told Lee that Pope “ought to be suppressed if possible,” as if he were an outlaw rather than an honorable opponent. Davis went further. On July 31 he issued an executive order that officers captured from Pope’s command should be imprisoned as felons and denied the rights accorded prisoners of war. On August 21 he would proclaim that the Federal commanders in New Orleans and the Sea Islands were criminals guilty of fomenting servile insurrection because of their attempts to enlist Blacks. General Lee supported his president, complaining to General Halleck about “the merciless atrocities which now characterize the war against the Confederate States.”21
Neither Davis nor Lee expected these measures to deter the radical tendency of Union policy. Rather, Davis’s protests registered his recognition that the Federal government was not interested in conciliation or a negotiated separation; that the Lincoln administration and its supporters, for the moment dominant in Northern politics, intended to destroy both Confederate independence and the Southern way of life.
That understanding altered Davis’s calculation of the balance between prudence and daring. In a war for national survival, necessity is the only prudent measure of risk. Lee had already accepted that principle as the basis of military decision making; Davis was now prepared to meet him on that ground. In his final instructions to General Bragg, sent on August 5, Davis recommended a course of action that would have required Bragg to embrace the risks of heavy and repeated combat in order to achieve decisive victory. He told Bragg to seize any opportunity to strike Buell while his force was in motion, “fight the enemy in detachments,” and destroy him in detail. After crushing Buell’s army, he should assault and recapture Nashville, which was the keystone of Federal operations in the West. That would compel the Federals under Grant to retreat from Tennessee, and Bragg could make “a complete conquest over the enemy” by destroying that force as well, thus achieving “the liberation of Tennessee and Kentucky.”22
As it happened, Bragg decided to turn that program on its head, invading Kentucky before attempting to “crush” Buell, and avoiding the decisive battles Davis recommended. Nevertheless, the aggressiveness of Davis’s recommendations was a sign of his increased willingness to accept the kind of risks and costs that might enable Lee to destroy Pope, and the plan he recommended to Bragg very closely resembles the program Lee would follow. On July 27 Davis agreed to Lee’s proposal that Jackson’s command be reinforced to thirty-five thousand, making it large enough to strike Pope’s forty-five thousand with some effect. However, the threat to the capital posed by McClellan’s army was still so grave that Lee had to keep the larger portion of his army in its defensive positions, and try to hold McClellan in place.
The new plan of operations was only one week old when Federal actions threatened to wreck it. On August 3 McClellan suddenly became active, sending a strong force across the James as if he intended to begin an advance on Petersburg, the junction point for four of the five railroads supplying Richmond from the south. Two days later he sent a strong force west out of Harrison’s Landing to occupy Malvern Hill, a strong point from which a new advance on Richmond could be launched. At the same time, Lee’s cavalry reported that a Federal corps of sixteen thousand under General Ambrose Burnside had occupied Fredericksburg. With so large a force, Burnside could break through Lee’s cavalry screen to threaten Richmond in combination with McClellan. He could also march west to join Pope, bringing the Army of Virginia up to nearly sixty thousand men—double Jackson’s augmented force. To forestall that possibility, Jackson elected to strike Pope. On August 9 Jackson engaged one of Pope’s three army corps at Cedar Mountain, a high hill some twenty miles east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Though he gained a tactical victory he could not exploit it, since Pope’s army still outnumbered him two to one. When Pope advanced to Cedar Mountain with his united force, Jackson had to retreat to his starting point at Gordonsville. A few days after the battle Pope’s army had taken up a strong position at Cedar Mountain, with its front along the Rapidan River—a tributary of the Rappahannock that ran west to east under the southern slope of Cedar Mountain.23
It was now apparent to Lee that a merely daring plan of campaign could not save the capital. He would have to send the bulk of his forces against Pope, leaving an inadequate force to defend Richmond against the double threat of Burnside and McClellan. He thought he could rely on McClellan’s characteristic reluctance to attack, and perhaps reinforce it by an energetic program of feints and deceptions. To ensure that that most critical aspect of the campaign was properly conducted, and to reassure President Davis that his capital would be well defended, Lee himself would stay behind to command the defense. He would have to leave the equally vital task of destroying Pope to subordinates. On the same day that Jackson engaged Pope, Lee ordered Lieutenant General James Longstreet to take his newly formed army corps, some six divisions, to join Jackson. As the senior officer, Longstreet would command his and Jackson’s Corps (more than sixty thousand troops), and Lee gave him general instructions for an operation against Pope.
It would take a week for Longstreet to move all his troops and equipment to Jackson’s position, which was something over sixty miles from Richmond via the Virginia Central Railroad. While the move was in progress, Lee’s tactical problem was radically simplified by two Federal actions. On August 13 the cavalry reported that Burnside’s Corps was moving west to join Pope—not south to threaten Richmond. That same day a deserter from McClellan’s army told his interrogators that McClellan was planning to withdraw his troops from Harrison’s Landing, presumably to ship them north for a grand concentration of force in northern Virginia. That intelligence would quickly be confirmed as Confederate scouts reported large troop movements from Harrison’s Landing to the docks at Fort Monroe.24
But Lee did not wait for confirmation of McClellan’s withdrawal. It was enough to know that an offensive against Richmond was not under way. Lee immediately ordered an additional infantry division and all his remaining cavalry to join Longstreet and Jackson, and he himself went north to command the united force. The day after Lee left he received word that McClellan’s army was abandoning the Peninsula. It would take several weeks for McClellan’s force to complete its embarkation and transshipment to Washington and march overland to join Pope. There would be a brief interval in which a rapid concentration of force would allow Lee to take the offensive against Pope. Such an offensive could do more than block Pope’s advance. It might wreck or destroy Pope’s force. If that were done promptly and thoroughly, Lee might have an opportunity to hit McClellan’s force before it was reorganized and defeat it in detail. That in turn might create an opening for an invasion or incursion into northern territory—a sequence similar to the one Davis had suggested to Bragg.
McClellan’s withdrawal removed at a stroke the only serious obstacle to a Southern offensive toward Washington and freed Lee’s entire field force for the purpose. Lee made no attempt to account for this astonishing turn of events—he simply moved with speed and efficiency to exploit it. In fact, he owed his opportunity to Abraham Lincoln, whose reorganization of Union strategy stumbled over the intractability of the McClellan problem.